Friday, December 27, 2013

The Mine Wars

I have a love of history.  I enjoy reading it, I enjoy hearing about it, I enjoy watching it.  Among other things I enjoy collecting relic "Mil-Surp" rifles, you know the old service rifles of various armies of the world.  I am sure some of these guns you find roaming around the internet can tell you there is nothing like holding an old Mosin, or M1 Garand.

We know about the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War but I wanted to point out a series of battles that are not well known.. I give West Virginia credit; they know when to pick up arms. Sometimes..... The West Virginia Coal War, also called the Mine Wars by some locals, started with the Matewan Massacre and ended with the battle of Blair Mountain. I will only highlight the two major altercations in this war. There were several instances where the Governor of the state imposed martial law to stop miners from protesting and altercations from breaking out. This was the largest insurrection against the government since the Civil War. Some 10,000 to 15,000 miners fought for the right to unionize. They stood against The Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, Logan County Sheriff's Department, the WV State Police, and the US Army.

Now, On May 19, 1920, the Baldwin-Felts came to Matewan, to evict pro-union miners. Many had already unionized. The agents came to evict all miners who were in the union or were pushing for union rights. When they arrived the agents had a false warrant for the arrest of the police chief Sid Hatfeild. The same was said of Hatfeild who had warrants for the arrest of the Baldwin-Felts agents. He confronted the agents at the train station, and a group of miners accompanied him. At that time, both warrants were presented, and the Mayor was summoned to sort out the mess. The Mayor sided with Hatfield, and shots were fired. Both the Mayor, and Albert Felts were the first wounded. After the gunfight had ended, two miners, the mayor, and seven Baldwin-Felts agents were dead including two Felts brothers. Hatfield for his part claimed that he had killed three of the agents, and was later acquitted of murder charges. He was then brought up on conspiracy charges in McDowell County a pro coal company county. When he appeared at court for his trial he was gunned down by Baldwin-Felts agents. No charges were brought against those involved in the shooting.
Since the Matewan Massacre he had become a folk hero to the miners, as well as his support to the UMWA. The murders of Hatfield and his deputy directly lead to the Battle of Blair Mountain. There were calls by "Mother" Jones, a union supporter not to march into Logan and Mingo counties. However this was ignored. On August 20, 1921, just twenty days after the murder of Hatfeild, armed miners and union supporters began gathering at Lens Creek Mountain. 13,000 men marched towards Logan, from all areas of the state. Many miners and supporters stole trains, stopping to pick up miners and union supporters along the way. On August 25 the first skirmishes of the Battle of Blair Mountain were fought. The next day President Harding threatened the use of the US Military, if hostilities did not end. After a meeting in Madison the miners and union supporters started to return home, only to return after they heard rumors that the Sheriff of Logan County and his forced consisting of Baldwin-Felts agents, West Virginia State Police, and Logan county Deputies, were attacking union supporters in a neighboring town. Just four days after the first skirmishes, the battle ran full tilt. Private aircraft in the employ of the anti-union forces were dropping home made bombs on the miners and union supporters. Even Army bombers based in Maryland dropped bombs to attempt to disperse the miners and their supporters. Around the beginning of September, the US Army had arrived to provide support for the Logan county sheriff. Bill Blizzard, leader of the miners forces, passed word to the miners and their supports to go home.

The battle and war were a decisive loss for the miners and their supporters. Union membership plummeted by nearly 40,000 members. However in the long run, it directly led to a stronger union, not only in the coal industry, but other industries as well. It also brought to light the dangerous conditions miners were forced to work in. It also changed the politics of the unions we see today. The UMWA of the early 20's lead to the Teamsters and Steelworkers unions of the New Deal era. So in essence it was a Pyrrhic victory for the coal companies. Imagine how things would be different, if guns were banned to all but military and law enforcement.